I’d never dined at the fantastical Inn at Little Washington until this month, but its existence has held a mythological presence in my life since childhood. As a kid in Maryland who was fascinated with food, every year I anticipated Washingtonian magazine’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list; it was always the focus of the January issue and showed up on newsstands around the holidays. I’d turn the pages slowly, mapping in my head the places I might one day visit in Washington D.C. and the two states that surround it.
The Inn at Little Washington seemed the most unattainable of them all — a fortress of opulence, modeled after a European country retreat in a tiny town 70 miles outside D.C. Patrick O’Connell began the restaurant in a converted garage in 1978 with then-partner Reinhardt Lynch. Over the years he’s hosted the Queen of England among a roster of royals, celebrities, and politicos. The Inn still hovers at the top of D.C. restaurant lists, and in its 40th year it just earned its third Michelin star. It’s an anomaly in America, a literal destination that remains relevant through its timelessness.
So I finally went a couple of weeks ago. As a critic who relishes every stratum of dining in every conceivable kind of environment, I’m also a Gen-Xer whose parents treated my brother and me to occasional, transformational meals in fancy Continental restaurants. I’m hard-wired to enjoy a certain kind of throwback luxury. Which is to say that the audacious sumptuousness of the Inn’s decor felt to me at once overwhelming and maybe a little silly but also deeply thrilling. I can’t conceive of the mind that mixed and matched patterns and textures and shapes in ways that both please and tease the brain. (My friend David Hagedorn described the setting in a 2015 review with way more justice than I can muster; he pulls out words like “passementerie” and “jabots.”)
Two of us settled into a sitting room before being shown to the table, for a glass of Champagne and bar snacks like olives, spiced pecans, and some candied pineapple that I can’t stop eating. Bites like potato chips with caviar appeared. Then came a basket of gougères, those warhorse hors d’oeuvres from another era made of choux pastry and Gruyere. Thing is? I’m not sure I’ve ever had better gougères — they were hot and tenuous and yet full of richness. Each lasted no longer than a passing thought. It turns out I can be entirely won over on the strength of a cheese puff.
The meal was lovely. It careened through dishes like lamb carpaccio with Caesar salad ice cream; scallops with a sauce of curry and Calvados swerved across the plate; grilled squab with foie gras, sour cherries, and caramelized endive; and veal tenderloin paired with ravioli filled with Taleggio in tomato cream. Cheese carts come and go from fashion; I like them and was happy to see a cheeky trolley with a cow’s head trundle over to the table.
The most daring part of dinner was dessert: peach mousse transformed by the modernist tricks of the pastry kitchen to closely resemble the fruit itself. It arrived set atop a circle of genoise and was served with a raspberry consommé to evoke the flavors of peach Melba. The dessert was christened “Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?” after a T.S. Eliot poem. I would not have been surprised to see it listed on the menu as “Call Me By Your Name.”
Patrick O’Connell is not Dominique Crenn or David Chang. For a subset of jaded, very well-fed food obsessives, eating at the Inn at Little Washington could feel regressive or dull. It isn’t cheap: A five-course tasting menu with plenty of extras costs $228 per person (and $238 per person on Saturday nights). But I’m so glad that I’ve now experienced it; for people who care about this level of dining in America, to me it remains a vital piece of the conversation for the hospitality and the setting’s now-rare lavishness and the care in the cooking.
I was staying with my parents in Maryland before heading down to D.C. and dinner at the Inn. My folks are planning their 50th anniversary next year; they’d never been to the Inn, either. As I was walking out the door my mother said, “I want a full report.” Mom, I think you’d love it.
Your roving critic,